It’s a summer evening in Derry in 1997, the night before four teenage girls and a little English guy got their GCSE results. Between news flashes and 90s dance hits, 16-year-old Clare nervously explains what’s at stake and why these results are so important: “We’re girls, we’re poor, we’re from Northern Ireland. North and we are Catholic!”
Lisa McGee’s stormy Derry Girls, returning for its final season, distilled the power of this hilarious drama into just 10 seconds of dialogue. The fears of the four girls – hungover Michelle, stressed-out Erin, eccentric Orla and anxious Clare – were played for humor, but the challenges they faced were real and serious.
Narratives about Northern Ireland, and in particular the conflict known euphemistically as “The Troubles”, focus overwhelmingly on men. The Derry Girls showed us what life was like for one of society’s most marginalized groups in a time and place some scholars have described as ‘armed patriarchy’.
You don’t often hear about the daily lives of girls and women during this time. Writer Eli Davies makes it clear how such stories are “often flattened by traditional conflict narratives.” These tend to center narratives around paramilitaries, politicians and the British military – all predominantly male.
The Derry Girls gloriously upended those conventions by putting Northern Irish girls firmly in the spotlight.
Real life in Northern Ireland
Horny Michelle gets some of the best lines on the show: “We do this for peace. A piece of that beautiful Protestant ass. Her irreverence is refreshing in a culture that still finds teenage sexuality subversive.
But audiences might not find it so amusing to learn that if Michelle had gotten pregnant, she wouldn’t have been able to access life-saving reproductive care in 1997. She would still be struggling now, in 2022.
Although Clare is accepted by her friends when she reveals she is gay in the first season, there are still pockets of Northern Irish society that are deeply homophobic. Clare couldn’t have married a girlfriend until 2019 when same-sex marriage was finally legalized. It was a difficult process, as was the decriminalization of abortion.
Teenage girls are often at the center of moral panics. Historically, society did not know what to do with girls and women who are not (yet) wives and mothers. This is especially true in an extremely conservative society like Northern Ireland.
What a joy to see teenage girls defying taboos simply by being themselves and living their lives. Derry Girls showed us a view of teenage life that we simply hadn’t seen before. I was born outside of Belfast and didn’t grow up in the North for that matter – but others can attest to the enormous thrill of seeing themselves portrayed on screen for the first time. Academic Caroline Magennis and blogger-activist Seaneen Molloy have written forcefully about it.
Yet audiences who didn’t experience the conflict, or even knew little about it, responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to McGee’s much-loved comedy. Seeing a show about four teenage girls (and token boy James) is always groundbreaking television.
Girls don’t wanna be left out
If there is a cultural problem with the exclusion of women, then attitudes towards girls are even worse. Girls always make society anxious and society doesn’t take them seriously.
The treatment of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is one example. Then-US President Donald Trump tweeted that Thunberg being named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year was “so ridiculous”, calling her strong commitment to her cause an “anger management agenda”. Other national leaders have been equally disrespectful.
We find men who claim to devalue the culture associated with girls, assuming that girls have bad taste or that it doesn’t matter what they think. In an interview with One Direction in GQ, journalist Jonathan Heaf confidently states that the girls don’t understand the music and “don’t care about the story”. This is clearly not true: female history students outnumber males at A and undergraduate level. I’d like to see Clare, the straight student, challenge Heaf to a history test. Or watch Heaf try to get tickets to a concert from Orla.
The cultural script still largely views teenage sexuality as horrifying. Even love stories privilege female virginity. If we think of recent and phenomenally successful programs such as Normal People or Bridgerton – also starring Nicola Coughlan, who plays Clare in Derry Girls – the romantic male lead is entitled to have a sexual past while the female lead teenager is not. It’s one of the key conventions of the romance genre: a chaste heroine saves a bad boy from himself.
Contemporary Irish fiction crackles with the voices of girls and women, but men are still more likely to read men’s books.
In movies, male actors get more than twice as much dialogue as their female counterparts. Researchers are still working out what these stats look like for fluid, non-binary transgender people, but clearly there would be no comparison.
Lisa McGee’s daughters may have graced our screens for the last time, but they’re joined by an ever-growing group of bright Northern Irish girls filling the pages of new books like Jan Carson, Sue Divin, Wendy Erskine and Michelle Gallen .
If Derry Girls was your entry point to Northern Ireland, you’ll discover a whole world of new stories that will challenge everything you thought you knew about life here. And although the tumultuous series has come to an end, it has moved the everyday lives and experiences of teenage girls to center stage, resonating with young female audiences far beyond the Irish Sea.